Street and Nature Photography – An interview with Erik Witsoe
Do you have any formal training in photography?
Not formally, no. Although I am trained as an artist and have spent much of my life developing those skills using a variety of media. From drawing and painting to now, photography. I started out drawing comic books when I was younger and learned through trial and error about dynamic composition, depth of field, perspective, and then in art school how to apply it all. Those skills that I learned as an artist have absolutely enhanced what I am learning and how I approach photography.
A few years back, my fiancé, Agnieszka (who is also an avid photographer) taught me how to use the DSLR, gave me some quick instruction on how it works, how to shoot, change the lens, use the manual setting, etc. From that point it was trial and error, taking tons and tons of bad, terrible shots at the same time. I was really intimidated by the wideness of some of the lens and really focused on macro shots for a long time. I was completely infatuated with rust for a time, mainly because I could control the subject to some degree. Eventually I worked through this and began to shoot more open, but it took a while.
But, having spent that time doing macro shots of everything allowed me time to get used to the camera and its mechanics, exposure, light metering and editing. I learned how to switch the focus to adjust the DOF, which is a technique that I use all of the time when I shoot now. I am constantly moving the focus to adjust the DOF. By shooting small, I learned how to control the frame and what was in it.
One of the most important things that I learned from my art background is POV, (point of view) which is something that I use constantly, from low to high, it allows me to have a bit of a dynamic perspective, giving my work that added extra gain. Something that drawing comics really taught me. Thanks Marvel and DC!
Composition as well, but that is something that I am always working on to improve and adjust, subject to subject. Street photography is teaching me more on how to compose quickly, what to look for and how to incorporate it. Some of my favorite shots lately are from the “Middle Road” series. Picking an area, crosswalks mainly, and waiting for the person to enter it and shooting them walking the middle of the road, thereby giving it a dynamic sense.
Where do you take inspiration from?
So many sources. I tend to view many, many different photos from all kinds of different styles daily. There are so many great photographers out there! But, I am really driven by light. Living here in Poland has really shifted how I approach my work. The light here is really incredible and often the buildings here allow this light to bounce around in ways that completely captivates me.
Or the forests….there is something that is really magical and appealing about walking through the forests here and the way the light moves through the trees at different times of the day that really captivates me as well. The trees are not as tall as the ones from Washington State (where I grew up) and that allows for a bit more light to cascade through them and gives a little bit more depth in the shadows.
Tone is a big source of inspiration. Some photographers are so good at tone that it doesn’t really matter what the subject is, I find myself drawn immediately to their work. So I am always working on my tones, the feel of them and how they play with the work, the subject, my emotions and my eye. I tend to prefer cooler tones, but I am working through that right now….
Cinema is another inspiration. I watch a lot of films, old and new, and especially lately have been really watching how a shot unfolds, asking myself how it works, why it works and what I like about it. I find myself thinking about films that have inspired me when I walk around and begin shooting. Sometimes I see something in film that reminds me of something that I have seen on the street and look for it until I get it.
How would you describe your photography style?
I consider myself to be an incidental photographer with a fairly pedestrian approach. I don’t really set up shots as much as I just walk around and allow things to occur. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. I will return to something that I felt wasn’t quite right with the light or how I shot it the first time, but not too often. Sometimes an area inspires me so much that I return to it over and over again, looking for that right moment or light or whatever it is I need to make it work for me.
I have many areas that I would like to develop, especially portraiture. I am constantly seeing so much great work out there from other photographers, mind blowing work really, when it comes to working with and incorporating people, especially portraiture. As an artist I have always been driven by the human figure and I find myself gravitating back towards that. It will be interesting to see how it evolves.
I use no flash and rely mainly on natural light, so again driven by light. Eventually I would like to begin to incorporate flash, but not quite yet. I am still learning how natural light works for me, why it works and how it develops in my work. I have nothing against flash, and appreciate so much of the work of others that use it, but I find it distracting right now as I do not have the set up or the time to learn how to incorporate it.
Your editing has an almost cinematic feel to it. Can you take us though your post-production workflow?
I shoot mainly in the mornings or the earlier part of the day, preferring the light that is available then. I then will upload to my computer and quickly view what I have taken, beginning to separate what immediately works for me and what does not. If something really grabs me I will begin to work on it. Usually though I view and then put away for a day or two and then come back and review again.
My work flow is really dependant on my available time. My fiancée and I own a small coffee shop here in Poznan, which dictates how much time I spend on my photos. I usually have a few hours in the early part of the day to do post production work.
When I find the shot that works for me, I will strip it down a bit, lower the contrast, shadows, saturation, etc. (in Lightroom). I then will begin to build it back up again (in Photoshop) with layers. My approach lately is very similar to painting. I view the initial photo as the sketch (once stripped down) and then I build it as I would a painting. Usually I will add a neutral filter to blend some of the color down and then start building. I tend to like to draw the eye in so I will build using a vignette to darken shadows at the edge and then will add a bit of blur if necessary. My tones are built using the existing color (I have a tendency to like cooler tones) so blues are a big part of my tone.
I seldom crop the photo anymore, unless it is for a cinematic look or square. I may level it off if needed, but not usually. Sometimes the photo speaks to me and is done rather quickly, other times I feel the need to really play with it and create an entirely different feel from what was originally there. Usually by overexposing it and drawing it out. Giving it a more dynamic feel so to speak.
You capture everything from landscapes, to nature, to street photography. What subject is your favorite to shoot?
That depends on the day! I am comfortable shooting all of the above, but would have to say that I really enjoy landscapes, especially when the right mood is present or a bit of fog. I really love foggy days…. Street photography is something that intrigues me to no end and I am constantly working to improve it and see new things on my daily journeys…
Nature is another one that I am constantly looking to express, when the right type of mood or environment presents itself it is pure magic for me. Getting to walk through the woods and convey the feeling of that through my work is an endless endeavor. And that also is true with my daily walk through the city….being able to capture it in a way that can transfer the magic that I often come across on the streets to the viewer is something that I strive for.
The seasons have everything to do with it for me as well. I really love Autumn and Winter here in Poland. The way the light shifts and all of the different hues that are resent, really drives my senses. Especially in fall, when all of the colors begin to show….so many amazing hues of red, orange, yellows and blues….just incredible. And then winter, the way the light bounces around between the buildings or forest off of the snow is truly inspiring.
What is your favorite walkaround lens?
Right now, my favorite by far is the Nikon 35mm 1.8f. It has not left my mount in some time. I like it because it allows versatility to my shots. When I need it wide, it is. When I want a narrow DOF it allows for that. Plus, it shoots really well in low light and has just the right amount of sharpness to it. There is a quality to the fame that is really nice…not too big, but just enough. I also have a 50mm 1.4 that I use quite a bit, but now that I am used to the 35, the 50 is a bit more difficult to manage because I tend to try and treat it the same way. The 50, however is beautiful for portraits….
What has been your proudest moment as a photographer so far?
So many….but, yesterday I passed a pretty incredible milestone. I passed the One Million views on my Flickr stream. One million views….when I started this a few years back I thought getting to ten thousand was incredible. I am really floored by this and it has left me really moved by the fact that so many around the world have appreciated my work.
In addition, I would say that the amount of credit and support that the people of Poznan and Poland have given me and my work is incredible. It is something that I never expected to have happened and have been overwhelmed by the amount of support that has been given to me. I get numerous emails thanking me for my vision of Poznan and often for a renewed appreciation for their city. Somehow, my being in Poland has really changed how I look at the world and for that, I am really grateful. This country is truly beautiful. And being able to show the world that is something that I am very grateful for…..so, thank you Agnieszka (my fiancé) for putting the camera in my hand years ago and patiently watching me shoot thousands of photos of rust without saying a word.
Perhaps, though, my best moment is from a photographer who is just starting and sending me an email to inform me how I have inspired them…..I always answer too. I remember sending those very same emails, often with no response, so I take it pretty seriously and do what I can for them. I never, ever, thought that I would be an inspiration for anyone and find it very humbling.
I am a Seattle native currently living in Poznan, Poland with my fiancée. My background is in Fine Arts, specializing in Graphite work. Several years ago I picked up the camera with the intent of learning how to use the DSLR….I haven’t looked back. Photography, for me, has been a gift since day one. It has allowed me to express how I see the world through my own perspective while utilizing everything that I have been taught as an artist. Everyday I find new sources for inspiration all around me, my visual sense has never felt so alive.
Also working on a little side project here in Poznan. Bigfoot Coffee Shop! We just opened a few weeks ago and are having tons of fun! Going to do some Flickr type meetups in the future…we can meet at my shop, get you caffeinated and off we go!